Battling Teacher Burnout

February 01, 2003 3 min read
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It’s February. You still have half a school year to go, and you may be feeling run-down. Your fuse may be short. You may be putting in less effort at school. You might feel detached from your students, and find yourself going through the motions to get through the day. You may even be sleeping poorly and calling in sick more often.

The problem is teacher burnout, and it strikes most teachers some point in their careers. Unruly students, uninvolved parents, too much paperwork, little recognition, and less- than-stellar pay are all energy-sappers and can leave teachers feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. The professional consequences can be significant.

“Teachers who experience burnout are less sympathetic toward students, are less committed to and involved in their jobs, have a lower tolerance for classroom disruption, are less apt to prepare adequately for class, and are generally less productive,” according to a leadership expert quoted in an “Education World” article on the subject.

For some teachers, burnout is more than just a rough patch. “It can be, and often is, a career- ending crash,” notes a 1996 Teacher Magazine article.

Paying attention to your emotional, mental, and physical state is necessary to gauge stress and prevent burnout. However, it isn’t always easy. Teachers are by nature centered on the needs of their students instead of their own, says Julia G. Thompson, author of “First- Year Teacher’s Survival Kit.” “Most teachers under stress are without full awareness of its severity and the toll it takes until the damage is significant,” she says. “One of the major reasons so many capable and bright young professionals leave our profession is because they lack the necessary coping skills to handle stress while it is still manageable.”

So finding ways to decompress is essential. Here are some suggestions:

  • Learn something new. Be open to new ideas and inspiration. “We want our students to be lifelong learners. Are we?” asks Scott Lederman, a veteran special education teacher and administrator. “Do we go to conferences that enhance our teaching areas? What new books are we reading?”
  • Laugh more. In a poll by the Eisenhower National Clearinghouse, veteran educators were asked to pick from a list the most important piece of advice to give to beginning teachers. More chose “take care of yourself, expect to work hard, and find time to laugh” than any other piece of advice.
  • Take a deep breath. When a potentially stressful moment arises in class, there are many things you can do to keep perspective, author Thompson advises: Don’t take rude student behavior personally. Count to ten. Find a way to laugh at yourself or the situation. Remind yourself that a week from now the problem probably won’t matter.
  • Manage your time. Good time management can be the key to finding a better balance in your life. It can mean more time to workout, read, spend time by yourself or with friends--all things that can help you feel revitalized. So buy a planner and use it wisely: Schedule in things you enjoy doing the same way you schedule in grading papers, meeting with parents, and helping students after school.
  • Spend some alone-time. “It’s healthy to spend time doing something just for you, so don’t feel guilty or let yourself tend to everyone else but you,” says Dr. Jeff St. John in “Creating Quality Time for Yourself ,” an article from the Complete Idiot’s Guides series. St. John suggests that taking even five minutes out of your workday to close your door and turn off your lights can help you regain composure.
  • But not TOO much time alone. Turn to other teachers for support and advice. “Many fellow colleagues have faced the same dilemmas you have, and have developed effective coping skills,” says Thompson. Participate in programs that encourage mentoring or team teaching. “It’s hard to petrify when you plan your day, your week, your year with a colleague whom you respect,” teacher Daniel Dyer observed in Education Week.
  • Above all, take care of yourself. When you leave school, don’t go home and crash on the couch. You know what the experts advise: Find time to exercise. Eat right. Drink lots of water all day long. Get enough sleep. All these things might seem like common sense, but when you are stressed out, they’re usually last on your “to-do” list. Bump them up a notch.
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